Like his previous, much-acclaimed Gifted, Patrick Evan's fourth novel is - among other things - a study of the internal and external workings of a writer. It starts as caustic, almost slapstick comedy, then moves towards deepening complexity and resonance.
North Canterbury-born, Algerian independence-supporting, scarily-realistic Raymond Lawrence, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature (though a lot of people felt Seamus Heaney should have won that year), is dead. Years after his explosive demise, the reputation of this "monster, genius, martyr", and of the trust which aims to preserve his house and memory, appear to be dying as well.
The roof needs replacing. Petty thefts (books, a toilet roll, a paua ashtray - with ash) are continuing. Some swine is producing garden gnomes in the shape of the late great. Steps must be taken. But in which direction: preservation or homicide?
In yet another post-quake Christchurch setting, the trustees meet and bicker. When Raymond the Master was alive, they all "seemed ... to loom a little larger in the world". Now they're dwindling, also. They can't decide whom to turn to or against.
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The Master's fiction appears to have been pretty strong stuff: murder, rampant sex, cannibalism. But he's becoming past tense (there's a wonderfully accurate Creative Writing Class scene where the next lot of aspiring authors haven't read him - or anyone).
So is it worth fighting to keep alive his memory and his Creative Arts School, at whose opening he behaved so unspeakably? And if so, how?
Peter the chief narrator - prissy, obsessive, wrenchingly faithful - squabbles and schemes to preserve his idol and adoptive, appalling father. He endures in-fighting, betrayal, the presence of a muscular oaf who grabs Raymond's life. He faces the spirit-breaking discovery of multiple plagiarisms; lies in order to protect truth; moves towards a very daring revelation. By the novel's end, he's become an affecting yet still gently ludicrous human being.
Other characters and events also grow in ambivalence. Lives and fictions pull one another along. There are clever switches of narrative voice; dialogue like small-arms fire; an extensive cast of characters and caricatures; a thoughtful look at the mystique of celebrity.
The Back of His Head (see the idiosyncratic portrait of the Master) also neatly nudges various literary issues. How much does the art excuse the life? How to fund the arts in a small, sidelined country? How "real" can something get to be?
Poignant, profane, insistently engaging. Patrick Evans gets better and better.
• The Back Of His Head by Patrick Evans (VUP $30)